Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson
Premise: A philosophy professor (Edward Norton) returns to his backwoods Oklahoma hometown and visits his twin brother, a marijuana cultivator who plans to take down a local drug lord (Richard Dreyfuss).
What Works: Leaves of Grass is a mix of dramatic and comedic elements. In tone and sensibility it is very similar to the films of the Coen Brothers, such as Fargo, although Leaves of Grass is a better film than some of the Coen’s productions because it has a better handle on story and pacing. Leaves of Grass tells the story of an academic who is forced to climb down from his ivory tower and acknowledge his family, and by extension a part of himself, that he has tried to ignore or disown. This is a familiar set up but Leaves of Grass does it very well. Most of its success is rooted in vivid characters, the most obvious of which is provided by Edward Norton in one of his best performances. Cast in dual roles as the up and coming academic and his burn out brother, Norton creates two distinct characters while also establishing commonalities between them that make their brotherhood believable. Norton’s performance is even more impressive because a lot of the laughs of Leaves of Grass, and there are a lot, come from the banter between these two characters. In successful odd couple comedies, such as Grumpy Old Men, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, or Dumb and Dumber, the success of the film depends upon the actors finding an appropriate rapport and developing rhythms to their interaction. What is impressive about Norton’s performance is that he manages to do this with himself in takes that must have been done one at a time and yet the exchanges cut together perfectly. Other impressive performances are provided by Susan Sarandon as the mother of Norton’s character, Richard Dreyfuss as a local drug lord, and Keri Russell as a local poet. Something especially refreshing about all of these characters is that the film does not fall into easy rural-versus-metro stereotypes; in lesser films that use a similar premise, the city dwellers spend the first half of the movie ridiculing the country folk but then disingenuously come around to their small town values by the end. Leaves of Grass finds foolish and admirable traits in characters from both places and that gives the film and the characters a sense of respect and balance that makes the drama and laughs very believable.
What Doesn’t: Leaves of Grass goes a little awry in the ending. It depends on some significant coincidences and it goes on a bit longer than it should. This film also might be enjoyed a bit more by people in or around academia. The film is told from a philosopher’s point of view and in all likely hood the funniest and most incisive moments will be best appreciated by those who come from a comparable background as the lead character.
DVD extras: Featurete, trailer, and a commentary track.
Bottom Line: Leaves of Grass is a very good film with great performances that manages to be both funny and heartfelt. Even though it has a flawed ending the film is overall very satisfying.
Episode: #336 (April 24, 2011)